As Tom Brady prepares for his 10th Super Bowl, Sunday, within a 21-year career as an NFL quarterback, many are wondering how he has lasted this long and with such great success. To walk away with his seventh championship, though, Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers will need to beat the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and their own star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes.
The two all-pro QBs are on opposite ends of the spectrum as it relates to their time in the league – and on Earth.
Brady, 43, continues to perform at a high level in a brutal sport where the average player lasts four to five years. Mahomes, 25, is in his fourth year. Despite their age difference, it has taken them both physical and mental strength to get to the elite level they share.
Daniel Vigil, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and a team physician for UCLA Athletics and the Los Angeles Lakers, knows Brady's longevity in the NFL is no small feat.
“Football is a violent, high-speed, high-velocity collision sport. It's hard to imagine someone having a career as long as Tom has. What amazes me about Tom is that he’s played this game for so long at a high level,” Dr. Vigil says.
“Athletes like Tom develop nuances to their training regimen and overall health that help them last a long time. It comes with proper diet and training,” he says. “We see it with LeBron. We saw it with Kobe and even Wayne Gretzky. The difference is Tom is playing in a much more violent sport – though a hockey player may argue otherwise.”
It’s no secret that nutrition and training play a major role in Brady’s longevity. According to TB12sports.com, a website that supports the TB12 health and wellness movement co-founded by Brady, the quarterback follows a predominantly plant-based diet.
Brady says his day starts at 6 am, as he fuels himself with electrolytes and nutrients. This includes drinking 20 ounces of water and a high-protein smoothie with bananas, blueberries, nuts and seeds. His daily training session usually begins around 8 am, Brady typically replenishing his body with water every 20 minutes. Once his workout concludes, Brady continues filling his body with whole grains and vegetables throughout the day.
“Nutrition is super important to perform well and Tom understands this. He knows how to take care of his body,” said Deviny Mo, manager at UCLA Health Sports Performance Powered by EXOS. “If you want to last long and perform at a high level like Tom you have to eat food that is going to help you perform better and train better. If you view your body as a Ferrari, you’re not going to go to your typical AM/PM gas station to fuel up on regular gas. You’re going to need a higher quality of fuel.”
Mahomes, Brady and the sports performance pyramid
Brady spent his first 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, where he guided the team to nine Super Bowl appearances and six titles. After a disappointing loss in the playoffs in the 2019-2020 season, many in the media began citing Brady's age and attrition as the reason behind what they called lackluster play.
After Brady left the Patriots in the off-season and signed with the Buccaneers, many commentators predicted Tampa Bay would be an early-exit playoff team at best. Sunday’s game serves as the counter-argument.
Their age differences aside, Mahomes and Brady stand out above the rest because they have several traits in common, among them, high football IQs: They know how to protect themselves during gameplay, including anticipating where their receivers are going to be and throwing to their target before being tackled. They also know when to run out of bounds to avoid a big hit.
"The great competitors know how to analyze the risk-reward," says Doug Polster, PhD, a sports neuropsychologist with the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program. "They know how to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term success."
Dr. Polster, who provides post-concussion treatments to NFL and NHL players, explained that longevity in a sport such as football requires not only physical strength but a great deal of mental fortitude and toughness. He described a sports performance pyramid model to explain why Brady and Mahomes are at the peak of their game.
"At the top of the pyramid, you have raw talent and skill. On the second level, you have health. The third level is training and coaching and the fourth is the mindset," Dr. Polster says. "You can't use the top for as long as Brady has unless you've mastered the bottom."
Mahomes, who suffered a concussion in a playoff game against the Cleveland Browns in mid-January, has, like Brady, gained the respect of many of his NFL peers – in large part due to his mental toughness and athletic ability.
Now the question is, can Mahomes’ career last as long as Brady's?
"Patrick needs to study the exceptional athletes that came before him,” Dr. Vigil says. “He needs to talk to the Bradys, Gretzkys and Lebrons and ask them what they've done to last this long."
For one thing, like Brady, he needs to avoid the punishing contact. "He needs to know when to go down and when to run," says Dr. Polster. "He and Brady already understand the small things they have to add to their repertoire, which is why they're already great."
A psychological and physical clash
Both Brady and Mahomes boast sound mental aptitude and physical abilities. However, the outcome of a single game can often come down to how well the contest is played on the field. Will Mahomes’ youth and rare athletic ability be enough to overcome Brady’s wit and Super Bowl experience on Sunday?
Kristofer Jones, MD, orthopedic surgeon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and head team physician for the Los Angeles Lakers, says each quarterback holds significant advantages over the other.
“Tom holds the psychological advantage because of Super Bowl experience. Patrick has been there once and this will be Tom’s 10th appearance. Your job success is not just based on your ability, but your experience, as well. Tom’s experience on the big stage gives him an advantage psychologically.”
Mahomes has won two of the four games he’s gone head-to-head against Brady, showing he’s mentally capable of handling the pressure of facing his older rival. One of those wins came earlier this season, as Mahomes led the Chiefs to a 27-24 victory over Brady’s Bucs.
“Physically, Patrick holds the edge over Tom because of his pure athleticism,” Dr. Jones continued. “He can run and make difficult throws that most quarterbacks can’t make. So, I’ll give the physical edge to Patrick. He has to be careful though. Given his style of play, he leaves himself open to more contact injuries, such as the patellar dislocation he recently suffered. Patrick still has to learn how to go down and live to fight another play.”
Dr. Timothy Fong, a UCLA Health clinical professor of psychiatry and an addiction psychiatrist who works with athletes, praises Mahomes for having “superb mental health.”
“Mahomes is 25 years old. How do you handle that type of pressure when you’re that young? I wish we graded athletes more on their mental health. What if we heard people say, ‘He has superb mental health talent?’ Patrick has the unique capability to stay calm under pressure, stay in the moment and operate under any circumstance. That’s special for someone his age. There are plenty of quarterbacks who were first-round draft picks and couldn’t handle the pressure that Mahomes has played through.”
Dr. Fong contrasted Mahomes to athletes such as JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf, both highly coveted NFL quarterbacks drafted out of college in the first round but who both had short-lived pro careers due to multiple on- and off-field issues. Leaf recently shared that he was not “mentally healthy” or “mentally prepared” for the pressures of the NFL.
“Brady and Mahomes have achieved success not just because of their physical abilities but because of their strong mental health,” Dr. Fong says. “With them, you can see their mental health on display by the way they communicate with their teammates and their positive attitudes. Both are mentally healthy.”
Brady and Mahomes share traits of greatness
Mo recalls Mahomes going through the Combine training program at EXOS in 2017 as he was preparing for the NFL Draft and the NFL Scouting Combine, where athletes showcase their strength, speed and agility for pro teams prior to the draft.
“He was among a group of athletes that we worked with,” she says. “We teach our athletes how to continue to train once they become pros, how to pay attention to his movement patterns, nutrition and recovery. Patrick is setting up those foundations as a young athlete and he has to do that if he intends on playing into his 40s like Tom.”
Brady and Mahomes are both regimented when it comes to fitness and health. They are both driven by a desire to be the greatest and they understand they cannot do it alone.
“Tom Brady has taken a proactive approach to staying healthy. He devotes millions of dollars on his health and recovery and he also brings his trainer (Alex Guerrero) with him wherever he goes,” says Dr. Jones. “Patrick should take note and integrate a similar approach to invest in the longevity of his career.”
Mahomes, similarly, works closely with his personal trainer, Bobby Stroupe, who began training the young QB when he was in fourth grade.
“Tom and Patrick are both generational talents. They come along every 20 to 30 years,” Dr. Fong says. “I’m looking forward to this game. Because of the times we’re in, we need this – not as a distraction, but as inspiration.”